This was the challenging title of the keynote presentation that Fergus McNeill, Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the Uni..., made to Clinks’ national conference in Birmingham. The conference theme was ‘Playing to our strengths: the role of the VCS in desistance’, and the presentation set just the right tone for the rest of the day. Although Fergus covered some of the same ground in this as in his previous presentation to a Clinks event (see Ben and Katie’s blog dated November 25 below), he took his argument somewhat further for our conference, in highlighting the particular contribution that Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) organisations can make to support people on their highly individual journeys to desistance.
Fergus started by talking us through his personal experience of approaching a professional for help with a chronic back condition. His worker listened to him well; she worked alongside him so that they could understand his problems together; she taught him new techniques for addressing his problem; and she seemed to provide a high quality service.
As he pointed out, there were marked parallels between this experience of seeking help and the interactions between a supportive worker and someone trying to desist from crime. Both problems were deeply entrenched and had multiple causes, and in both cases the final outcome would be contingent on a complex interaction between the quality of the services provided, the individual’s readiness to change, and myriad other environmental influences beyond the control of either the worker or the person using their service.
Here Fergus reminded us of the need for a new ‘Copernican Commissioning Model’ in which - rather than placing inflexible treatment programmes at the heart of the system and expecting every offender to fit into them - the person changing would be placed at the centre of an individually tailored, holistic set of services, which would not only support the individual but also mediate their re-integration into the surrounding community.
Desistance research suggests that a number of interacting elements are key to a person's ability to navigate a successful (if uneven) journey to desistance:
- Individualisation of services, tailored to their particular needs and circumstances
- Hope and motivation; a belief that change is possible
- Relationships with family, friends, workers, volunteers
- A strengths-based approach that builds on, rather than saps, personal resilience
- Self-determination; being able to take increasing control of one’s own life
- Social capital; connectedness to the wider community, its social support and resources
- Recognition of a transformed identity, e.g. some ceremony or ritual to mark successful completion of a Probation Order or Licence
In light of this learning, Fergus again challenged the use of reconviction as an effective measure of desistance from crime, since every individual’s attempts at change of any kind (whether to alleviate chronic back pain, lose weight - my own daily challenge! - or avoid situations that make one vulnerable to re-offending) are so susceptible to other influences, most of which currently militate against the likelihood of success. He therefore argued that reducing reoffending is not an outcome that NOMS or any provider cancompel, command or control, nor one that it can claim as its achievement.
So, desistance is in the hands of service users themselves, and re-integration is in the hands of communities. That does however leave an important role for mediators, a role that VCS organisations have always been particularly well placed to play, being rooted in local areas and having strong connections to other sources of social support and community resources.
It follows from all this that commissioners and providers should only promise what they can deliver, and deliver what they promise. If one accepts this position, Fergus suggested that criminal sanctions should be judged by the quality of justice delivered, while working alongside to support desistance (but not promising to ‘deliver’ it).
What, then, would a quality service look like that supports desistance? In the prison setting, Fergus drew on research by Liebling (2011) to show that supporting prisoners’ personal development (and thereby supporting their desistance) is significantly correlated with the individual establishment’s help and assistance; humanity; staff professionalism; bureaucratic legitimacy (the transparency and responsiveness of the prison/system); and its organisational consistency.
In the community setting, research by Shapland et al., (forthcoming) has found that quality in 1-to-1 probation supervision equates to:
- Building genuine relationships
- Encouraging and involving offenders
- Understanding how desistance might occur
- Tackling practical obstacles
- Knowledge of local resources
[As a personal aside, I have to say this list represents a welcome re-discovering of older ideas about good probation practice. Having trained and worked as a Probation Officer in the 1970s and 80s, these were accepted as self-evident truths, backed up by understandings (and training) that drew extensively on Psychology (Martin Seligman, Gerald Caplan, John Bowlby and others), Sociology (Robert Merton; Howard Becker; Erving Goffman; Edwin Schur), and that viewed individuals’ behaviour as arising from complex and dynamic interactions between their individual histories, personal and emotional resilience, stability of familial and social relationships, and the extent of their wider social inclusion. The great difference between then and now of course is the growing body of convincing research that supports the value of approaches underpinned by desistance theory.]
Anyway, back to Fergus, who urged us in light of the desistance research to think less of binary measures focused on reduced reoffending, and more of progress and distance travelled. He reminded us that slowing down a high risk Prolific and Priority Offender produces more value than stopping a low risk first offender, and identified a number of valid and reliable methods of measurement that might be used here:
- ‘Survival analysis’
- Calculating the cost savings of accelerated desistance
- Measuring changes in the frequency, severity and duration of offending
- Finding measures linked to desistance theory in terms of: maturation, responsibility and agency; developing positive social bonds and social capital; shifts in identity
Overall, Fergus summarised his presentation in ‘Five Ideas’:
- Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Instead, seek alliances with those who demand clarity of purposes, linked to clear frameworks for measuring quality and outcomes.
- Seriously engage users in all aspects of service and practice design, delivery and evaluation.
- Study and learn from the contingent links between quality, progress and outcomes.
- Recognise that quality is not just about serving a positive outcome. It is also about questions of principle (what is ethical and humane) and the way practice is delivered and experienced by the service user.
- Don’t mistake or over-rate the role of evidence in debates that are fundamentally moral (and emotional). Gather moral as well as technical evidence. Engage the gut, heart and the head.
The Good News for the conference was Fergus’s assertion that these are not really new ideas for the VCS. This is what the VCS (at its best) has always been about:
You have as much to contribute to progress on these challenges as anyone else, and more than some…
And, as Clinks’ conference was taking place just the day after Burns’ Night, Fergus finished with a timely reminder that compassionate understanding of the social ills that contribute to people’s criminal behaviour – and a determination to make a difference to their chances of achieving desistance – are neither new nor wasted ideas, but ones that we need to keep alive and fresh in every policy era:
A Penitential thought, in the hour of Remorse
Robert Burns, 1777
All devil as I am - a damned wretch,
A harden'd, stubborn, unrepenting villain,
Still my heart melts at human wretchedness;
And with sincere tho' unavailing sighs
I view the helpless children of Distress.
With tears indignant I behold th' Oppressor,
Rejoicing in the honest man's destruction,
Whose unsubmitting heart was all his crime.
Even you, ye hapless crew, I pity you;
Ye, whom the Seeming good think sin to pity;
Ye poor, despis'd, abandon'd vagabonds,
Whom Vice, as usual, has turn'd o'er to Ruin.
O, but for kind, tho' ill-requited,
I had been driven forth like you forlorn,
The most detested, worthless wretch among you!
O injured God! Thy goodness has endow'd me
With talents passing most of my compeers,
Which I in just proportion have abus'd;
As far surpassing other common villains
As Thou in natural parts hadst given me more.
If you were at the conference, please do let us know what further reflections Fergus’ presentation sparked off in you:
- Are you persuaded by his argument that the binary reoffending measure is an inadequate way to evaluate change, and makes us political hostages to fortune?
- Do you feel that the service your organisation provides delivers ‘quality’ and ‘supports desistance’ in the terms presented here?
- What more could Clinks do to help your organisation develop its skills and knowledge and become more effective in delivering and measuring ‘quality’ services that support desistance?
- As a service user or someone who has successfully desisted, does what Fergus says resonate with your own experience?
- How could we shift our language (the discourse) to reflect the fact that people caught up in the Criminal Justice System are not merely ‘offenders’ but have their own strengths and potentials that point to a more positive future identity?
- How could we better celebrate and describe the transition to being an ‘ex-offender’?
Fergus also pointed the conference to a lot of useful research material on desistance (and the opportunity to blog your own ideas and information) at:http://blogs.iriss.org.uk/discoveringdesistance/
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.@hibiscuscharity have launched a report - funded by Clinks - which explores the complex issues faced by Black, minoritised and migrant women in contact with the CJS and the resulting impacts on their mental health.
Read the report here: https://hibiscusinitiatives.org.uk/media/2023/06/rmc-mental-health-report-document.pdf